Too much of a good thing?

The hidden perils of wabi-sabi

| September/October 2001

Once you discover wabi-sabi, the art of imperfect beauty, you may be tempted to analyze the wabi-sabiness of your life and everything around you. Believe us. Here in the Utne Reader offices, we know. Art director Kristi Anderson has a renewed fondness for her family’s tattered and unreliable hammock (above). Editor Jay Walljasper muses on the Liberty Bell as the ultimate symbol of American wabi-sabi—or maybe Bill Clinton. And me—I’m pondering the wabi-sabi nature of potholes and romantic breakups.

But the beauty of wabi-sabi can easily be tarnished. In line to become the next feng shui, another Eastern aesthetic that could easily be co-opted into a marketing device, wabi-sabi needs to be handled with care. Ask yourself whether you’re adopting wabi-sabi as a way of seeing and being in the world—or as a convenient justification to buy new stuff, even if it’s old new stuff. Ask yourself whether you’ve been seduced by faux wabi-sabi, that new-that-just-looks-old trend found in furniture with distressed paint, "worn-in" jeans, and Meg Ryan’s hair. And be wary of the following pitfalls:

Wabi-Slobby. When you keep wearing a favorite pair of jeans that’s ripping in very unfortunate places, or when that pile of unwashed dishes seems to take on a certain je ne sais quoi, ask yourself at what point comfortable crosses the line into slovenliness, when relaxed becomes a hazard to your health.

Wabi-Jobby. A wabi-sabi attitude at work —remembering that all things are imperfect, all things are incomplete—may help your stress level. But my colleague Jeremiah Creedon notes that at some jobs you might want to check wabi-sabi at the door: brake repair, airline maintenance, tux rental, blowfish cuisine, circus stunts with big cats, and condom quality control.

Wabi-Snobby. When your friend buys a new couch instead of propping up the old one, do you measure her with your wabi-sabi yardstick? While many old things are worth fighting for, don’t overdo it on principle alone. It may be beautiful, and natural, to let things take their own course, but when your weeds spill into your neighbor’s garden, best stay off your wabi-sabi high horse.

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